Firing an employee and discrimination claims

Federal law prohibits an employer engaging in discrimination, such as discriminating based on race or gender, while firing or while disciplining employees. Minnesota employers may fight discrimination claims by adopting procedures for fairly and consistently investigating, documenting and taking action upon employment misconduct or employment disputes.

There must be direct evidence of discrimination by the people who make the actual employment decisions. Stray remarks and office gossip is not proof of discrimination even if co-workers make discriminatory comments.

Where there is no direct evidence, aggrieved employees can prove their claim by showing that they are a member of a protected group, meeting the employer’s legitimate expectations and suffered an adverse employment action under circumstances permitting an inference of discrimination. The employer must then offer a legitimate and non-discriminatory justification for its action which must withstand proof that it is not a mere pretext for discrimination.

The U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals recently adjudicated a case involving a supervisor who claimed that an employer engaged in discrimination and retaliated against him by firing him for sexual harassment. He earlier reported that another worker held a knife to an employee. The plaintiff claimed that the person who allegedly engaged in the knife incident said that there would be retaliation for the plaintiff’s report of that incident and that two employees made false sexual harassment claims as retaliation for his earlier report.

Third-party statements of co-workers do not constitute direct evidence of discrimination by the decision-makers, according to the court. It also ruled that the employer only prove that it had a good faith belief that the plaintiff in this case engaged in the sexual harassment conduct that led to his firing.

According to the court, the plaintiff did not rebut the employer’s claims that it conducted a thorough investigation and formed a good faith belief that the allegations were true before firing him. It rejected plaintiff’s claims that other employees were not terminated for sexual harassment because he did not adequately dispute the employer’s claims that their situations were not similar.

Legal advice can help employers to forestall business disputes. Lawyers may help formulate and draft reasonable plans and notify its employees of proper policies.

Source: Moody v. Vozel, No. 13-3772 (8th Cir. 2014)

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